SEATTLE — “Don’t panic, it’s too early” was the message Wednesday as officials with the Washington Department of Health (DOH) discussed the new omicron variant of COVID-19, which is still undetected in the state.
At the beginning of the morning briefing, the variant was still foreign, having not yet been detected in the U.S. Yet, before the briefing was over, alerts were already being sent announcing the presence of omicron in California.
“In the world of Twitter and social media, it looks like the first confirmed U.S. case of the omicron variant has been detected in California,” Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah said, announcing the breaking news midway through questions and answers. “As you see me read that out, the reaction from our team is what we said earlier. Don’t be surprised when we get a positive case somewhere, and don’t be surprised if you get a positive case of the omicron variant here in the state of Washington.”
Shah reiterated that it wasn’t a time to panic, explaining that there are four things scientists still don’t know: The degree of vaccine efficacy against omicron: how transmissible the omicron variant is, how detrimental to health the omicron variant is and everywhere the omicron variant is already active.
State epidemiologist Dr. Scott Lindquist said that his biggest concern is if the new variant is more infectious than the delta variant, which is still the dominant strain throughout Washington and the country.
He explained that there are around 50 mutations on the surface of the omicron variant, and it doesn’t appear to have mutated from the delta variant, adding that omicron doesn’t appear to be more deadly than delta but does appear to be more transmissible.
“The big questions I have about this [are] how effective are the vaccines going to be, and we don’t know that information yet; how effective will the antiviral medicines that are just coming on the market going to be, and we don’t have that answer yet; and how effective are monoclonal antibodies going to be against this,” Lindquist said.
He went on to say that it will likely be weeks before these questions can be answered.
One thing health officials are all but certain about is that there will be a case detected in Washington state.
Washington is in the top six states for genome testing of COVID-19 cases. The state is primed to detect omicron once it enters the testing system.
However, Lindquist said that even if omicron is found in the state, the response won’t likely change.
“I would challenge the notion that we’re going to do something different if it’s omicron because there’s not anything that we’re going to do different with omicron,” he said. “We know what it takes. You need to isolate if you’re a case. You need to identify your contacts so they can quarantine. You need to be able to get testing, and the details of antivirals and monoclonals, that’s not going to change.”
The California case of omicron was detected in a resident who had returned from South Africa, where the variant was first reported, on Nov. 22 and tested positive a week later.
The closest known case of omicron to Washington state is in British Columbia, which reported its first case of the variant Tuesday. The person was within the Fraser Health Authority, which covers southwest B.C. from Burnaby to Fraser Canyon, and recently traveled from Nigeria, according to Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.
Shah, Lindquist and the rest of the DOH panel continued to urge everyone who is eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Adults who are fully vaccinated should get their booster shot, as well.
As of Monday, about 62% of all Washingtonians are fully vaccinated against the virus. About 20% of newly eligible children ages 5-11 have received their first dose of the vaccine in the state.
Models show that about 34% of the state’s population is still vulnerable to infection, Lindquist said, which he called “unacceptable.”
Shah explained it is not a time to panic but a time to be concerned, urging everyone to double down on precautions and strategies already in place like masking and social distancing.
He said, “If we decide, ‘hey, we’re tired of this virus.’ Well, the virus is clearly not tired of us.”